March Madness: Can FGCU spark Cinderella magic again?
DAYTON, Ohio – Somewhere, it has to happen. Sometime. By someone.
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"Yeah. Undefeated," guard Zach Johnson said, smiling in the face of peril, or in this case in the face of mighty North Carolina. Thursday. In Raleigh, a short drive from Roy Williams’ office.
"We’ve been hearing about it this whole time," said Marc-Eddy Norelia, who put 20 points and 10 rebounds on Fairleigh Dickinson.
In case anyone needs a reminder, it’s 124-0. Or 0-124, depending upon your perspective.
It has to change sooner or later, right? Right? There has been a lot of turbulence this season up the food chain in college basketball. Many bluebloods stumbling.
"If it’s going to happen," Norelia said, "it’s going to happen this year."
Florida Gulf Coast looked confident and hot Tuesday night, just good enough to make people wonder if the Eagles might be up to it. Well, except for the 18 turnovers and 58.8 percent free throw shooting, which they absolutely cannot have Thursday night, if they don’t want to be run out of the premises and into the parking lot.
Still, the theory stands. Someone has to do it, sooner or later.
"Why not us?" Florida Gulf Coast coach Joe Dooley said, walking down the ramp toward his locker room
The Eagles have shocked the world before, becoming the first No. 15 seed to ever get to the Sweet 16, in 2013. Those two weeks got Andy Enfield the coaching job at USC, and sent the school’s marketing efforts into the stratosphere.
What can March mean, if the news is this good? Florida Gulf Coast’s fund raising the year leading up to the Sweet 16 was $14 million. Three years later, it’s $30 million. The enrollment the fall before the Sweet 16 was 13,442. By the next fall, it was up to 14,074. By the past fall, 14,824.
Imagine what breaking the No. 16 barrier would mean.
There have been hints lately that it is close to happening. Not last March, certainly, when the spreads were 41, 29, 23 and 14. But in 2014, Weber State played Arizona to nine points. In 2013, it was Gonzaga over Southern by six, Kansas over Western Kentucky by seven. The year before, Syracuse beat UNC Asheville by seven.
None of those were on the brink. The gold standard for that remains Murray State taking Michigan State to overtime in 1990, Purdue edging Western Carolina by two in 1996, and the near-magical two days in 1989, when Oklahoma escaped East Tennessee State 72-71 on Thursday and Georgetown gasped past Princeton 50-49 on Friday.
On Princeton-Georgetown, the national television grew with each back-door basket by the Tigers. Had that happened in the modern age, Twitter might have blown up.
But there have been enough reasonable scores lately to suggest it is not impossible. Somewhere, sometime, somebody.
Thursday in Raleigh?
Dooley noted his 21-13 team has played in tough places such as Florida and Texas A&M this season. "But Carolina’s Carolina," he said. "It will be a whole different animal on Thursday."
They’ll need to hit shots. They’ll need to play defense. They’ll need to avoid mistakes. Most of all, they’ll need believe they can do it.
"Personally me, I’ve been an underdog my whole life and I’m pretty sure a lot of these guys, a lot of schools overlooked us," Norelia said. "So when we get this opportunity, we want to make the best effort.
"Anything can happen. As long as we do what Coach says, I’m pretty sure we can make it happen, if it’s possible."
Yeah, but is it? And is Florida Gulf Coast the upstart to do it?
"We really can only control ourselves so we’re going to line up and try to play the best basketball we can," said Johnson, who is a North Carolina product.
"We get along real well, we pass the ball around so whoever is going that day, we try to get it to him. I think a lot of teams, when they play bigger opponents, people can try to be selfish, or get theirs and try to make big plays. We just want to continue what we’ve been doing all year."
They think they have a chance, anyway. Norelia was asked Monday how many clothes he had packed for the trip to Dayton, and if necessary, Raleigh.
"For the whole weekend."